A seat in GP2 or GP3 is the closest you can get to F1 without actually being on the GP grid. But it can also be a case of so near and yet so far…
This the final part of our series on motor racing’s Money Tree and the road to the top echelon of the sport. With both the GP2 and GP3 series running as support races to Formula 1, a seat in either means that you’re competing in front of the right people. Success is guaranteed to get you noticed by potential F1 employers.
GP2 is considered the official F1 feeder series, with 18 graduates making the F1 grid in its seven-year history, while GP3 — which has just finished its second year — is fast becoming a worthy rival to Formula 3.
Even if you make the GP2 or GP3 grids, however, the Formula 1 dream is far from automatic. Looking at the history of GP2, series graduates only have a one in nine chance of getting an F1 race seat. Even at these heady heights on the Money Tree the odds are stacked against you and the competition is greater than ever.
If you follow the trail of motor racing breadcrumbs, the seeds of the GP2 Series were sown back in 1948 when Formula 2 first appeared.
Fast-forward 36 years and the F2 championship was dominated by works entries and had escalated in cost so much that Bernie Ecclestone set up F3000 for the 1985 season. It would use the 3-litre Cosworh DFV, of which Bernie had bought a large number the previous year after the rise of the turbos in Fl made the venerable engine redundant.
Due to spiralling costs the series went ‘one-make’ in 1996. However, despite some drivers such as Nick Heidfeld being promoted to Formula 1, F3000 failed to take off. Was it down to the ambiguous name, the processional races or the jump in performance to Fl? No doubt a combination of all three and more.
Alongside Flavio Briatore and series organiser Bruno Michel, Ecclestone once again stepped in to revamp the Fl feeder series for the 2005 season. GP2 would use Dallara chassis rather than Lola, while the overall performance of the car would be much closer to Fl, partly thanks to more power from the Zytek engines. These have now been replaced by Mecachrome power units.
In the summer of 2007 the GP2 Asia Series was announced, which would run over the winter months. F1 would hold its first night race the following year in Singapore, adding to the races in Sepang and Bahrain, and GP2 organiser Michel was keen to have a series taking in some of these fixtures at little extra cost. The new championship held two rounds in Dubai and further meetings at Sental, Sepang and Bahrain. It was announced this year, however, that this sister series would stop after the 2010/11 season.
In comparison to GP2, the lower GP3 category is still quite new, having only started in 2010. Michel was keen to provide a clear step up to GP2 and despite the existence of Formula 3, Formula Renault 2.0 and Formula 2 it can so far be considered a success, with full grids and 2010 champion Esteban Gutierrez progressing to GP2 as planned. Although the other single-seater categories that sit alongside GP3 on the Money Tree have a history of success, GP3 is owned by the same company as GP2 which is itself part of Formula One Management. Parts of it are overseen by the FIA and it runs on F1 weekends, so don’t expect this series to fade away any time soon.
THE PROS AND CONS GP2
GP2 is recognised as the official Formula 1 feeder series, and even if the strike rate of making it to F1 is one in nine, that means 18 drivers have still progressed from its ranks in seven years. Not bad when you consider how few seats become available in F1.
You are racing against the world’s best young drivers. You may have avoided certain racers on the way up, but you’re likely to meet them in GP2.
You race under the spotlight of the F1 teams, and with mandatory pitstops, Pirelli tyres and high-performance cars, GP2 offers a very good learning experience.
It is extremely expensive. The cost of a season of GP2 is S1.3-1.7 million and the demands of such a budget has derailed many a promising career.
There are other ways to reach Formula 1. Double World Champion Sebastian Vettel is one example, having raced in Formula Renault 3.5 before moving to F1, while other recent F1 rookies Jaime Alguersuari, Daniel Ricciardo and Paul di Resta also missed GP2.
Even if you win the title it doesn’t guarantee you an F1 career. Nico Hulkenberg was 2009 champion and is currently sitting on the sidelines after failing to bring enough money to Williams to retain his drive.
THE PROS AND CONS GP3
As with GP2 you are competing on F1 weekends and in front of the right people. Not only that, but you have plenty of opportunities to build relationships with F1 and GP2 teams.
Everyone is in the same car. If you’ve got the talent, you should be able to showcase it.
A season of GP3 is roughly the same price as a year of British F3 between £500-650,000. But in F3 you get more track time and it is a proven series with various engines available and two different chassis constructors.
Like modern Formula 2, GP3 needs to prove itself. If GP3 winners don’t go on to succeed in GP2 and then F1, questions will be asked.
VIEW FROM THE INSIDE
“I didn’t think of returning to GP2 after racing in Formula 1 as a backwards step,” says Romain Grosjean. “The first mission I had was to bring the DAMS team back to the top, while the second was a personal challenge – I really wanted to win the GP2 title.”
The Frenchman finished fourth in GP2 in 2008-09 and might have won it that second year if not for a move to F1 halfway through the season.
“There are no clear rules on how to get to F1 and you can make a good case for many championships, but GP2 is clearly a very good school,” he says. “You have to learn about tyre degradation and the F1 tracks. Also you are racing in front of the team managers and thanks to all that GP2 is a very good way to get to F1.
“Money is an issue in motor racing, but GP2 cars are efficient and technically advanced. Most of the teams are trying to keep the budgets down, but the running costs of a car are what they are.”
So will Grosjean be on the F1 grid next year? “Let’s just say that I have done what I can by winning both the GP2 Series and Asia series. I’m working hard on gaffing a seat in F1 for next year. I think that my results, and the way that I brought DAMS back to the top, prove that I deserve a real chance in Formula 1.”